JUPITER, Fla. • Cardinals manager Mike Matheny remembers how he spent some of his final games as a catcher for the club trying to devise new ways to do the impossible.
Deep into the 2004 National League championship series against feisty rival Houston, the Cardinals watched the Astros’ center fielder do the improbable, nightly. If he wasn’t wheeling on a filthy breaking ball for a homer, he’d conjure a run out of little more than a walk, a steal, and a fly ball.
Matheny, pitching coach Dave Duncan and the pitchers would gather to review scouting reports and rethink how to pitch this switch-hitter.
Whatever they threw at him, Carlos Beltran turned into a record.
“It was like, ‘Don’t let this guy beat us,’ and then guess what?” Matheny said. “That was the hottest I’ve ever seen a hitter. I told him here that he probably owed me part of that big contract he got. I must have done something wrong.”
On his way to a seven-year, $119-million deal as a free agent, Beltran riddled the Cardinals with four home runs, a .417 batting average, 12 runs scored and a staggering .958 slugging percentage in those seven games. Lance Berkman, a teammate of his then and now, called it “a rampage.”
Beltran tied a record for homers in that postseason, with eight. He set a record with 21 runs. His .817 career slugging percentage in the postseason is the highest in history, well ahead of No. 2, David Freese’s .794. Of all the players with at least 100 plate appearances in the playoffs, Beltran is one of three with a slugging percentage better than .730. Lou Gehrig (.731) and Babe Ruth (.744) are the others.
While his playoff résumé is loaded with overwhelming numbers, it lacks the glitz that other playoff peers have — a World Series title. A highly decorated career is missing the crown jewel. Twice Beltran’s team has been one game from a World Series berth, and each time the Cardinals have won that Game 7. Unable to beat them, he’s joined them because he wants what they’ve kept him from.
What playoff baseball discovered about Carlos Beltran in 2004 is little compared to what Carlos Beltran discovered about playoff baseball that fall he spent as one of Houston’s “Killer B’s.”
It is pollen.
“I was like, ‘Man, this is fun,’” Beltran recalls. “This is where it really is. You want to be in this time of year playing baseball. This is all you want. That is when I realized how fun it is to play in October and what it means to go back.”
Finding a happy place
Several days before Christmas, the six-time All-Star had a rented Santa Claus costume to surprise his daughter — and a two-year, $26-million offer from the Cardinals. Under the wrapping was a no-trade clause, an added gift.
Beltran had several teams interested in him, including Cleveland, Toronto and Boston. At 34, his knee rebuilt and his career headed toward its own autumn, Beltran had his choice of teams with a DH, with artificial turf, with title chances and some with a mix from all three.
He said his wife, Jessica, offered perspective.
“Go to the place that you will be happy,” he recalls her saying. “Go to the place where you have the most opportunity to win a championship.”
Beltran was fresh from a bounce-back 2011 that included a shift to right field. Selected for the All-Star Game, Beltran hit .300 with 22 homers and 84 RBIs. His .910 on-base-plus-slugging-percentage (OPS) was the fourth highest among NL outfielders, just behind Matt Holliday’s .912.
The New York Mets traded him to San Francisco to help the Giants’ failed playoff push, and though he missed the final 60 games the Mets played Beltran still led that team in homers (15) and RBIs (66).
Another year removed from knee surgery, Beltran reasserted his place as one of the elite outfielders in the league, if people noticed.
“Everybody underappreciated it,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “You wait. You wait and see. He’s going to steal a base when nobody expects it. Everybody is going to say, ‘Oh, he’s not going to run because he’s got that bad knee.’ You wait. You wait. He’s a game-changer.”
Collins said some of the misperception of Beltran comes because he’s “not loud.” The switch-hitter, as teammates describe, is reserved and quiet.
And yet Collins said last summer when an unflattering magazine article upset the Mets’ clubhouse, it was Beltran who spoke during a team meeting and helped the group reset.
After that record run through the 2004 postseason, Beltran came to the Mets as part of a revitalization and what he called “The New Mets.”
He personified their title aspirations and eventually their frustrations. In the final moment of the Mets’ 2006 season, he took Cardinals rookie Adam Wainwright’s curveball for a called strike three to end Game 7 of the NLCS. Beltran hit 41 homers and drove in 116 runs that season to finish fourth in MVP voting, but it was a swing he didn’t take that warped the look of all the ones he did. He had three straight years of 100 RBIs and three times hit more than 25 homers for the Mets.
Yet, the Mets went public with Beltran missing a team visit to a military hospital without advertising that he had a reason. And when he had surgery to correct a knee injury, the Mets initially said he did it without their permission.
“For me, there were a lot of ups and downs and there are no doubts about that,” Beltran said. “There were situations that got out of hand. I felt the way they managed their situation was sometimes a mess for me. … My time with the Mets, I have no regrets, though. There are no regrets. I feel in the years I was healthy I did the best, the best I could.”
Collins said one of the final talks he and Beltran had included his star saying he “came to New York to win a championship” and left without one.
The Giants acquired him on July 28, and from there Beltran hit .323 with seven homers and a .551 slugging percentage.
The numbers were muted by the Giants’ late fade from contention.
“What he did in New York I think exceeded his contract,” said Eduardo Perez, the Miami Marlins hitting coach. “He wasn’t satisfied because he’ll say he didn’t bring a world championship to them. I’m a big Carlos Beltran fan, and I’ll tell you why. He’s not loud. He’s quiet. He can be real quiet, but don’t mistake his quietness for what he does on and off the field. That’s loud. That’s real loud.”
When put on hold at The Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy, the caller can hear “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” while waiting before someone picks up. The facility in Beltran’s native Puerto Rico opened in August, and this school year it has 103 students. The students are all 10th and 11th graders, athletics director Aris Tirado said, and a year from now the school plans to graduate its first class.
The combination academy and high school is Beltran’s $10-million passion project, and two friends said he has contributed more than a third of that cost himself. His idea was to set up a high school to which talented ballplayers could come, learn English, improve their game and be better prepared for U.S. colleges or pro ball.
Thursday was an English day at the school.
Coaches only spoke English on the ball field.
“Carlos has given his heart to move this forward as much as he can,” Tirado said. “And if these kids can get to the stage where they are in a spring training or playing for a college, they won’t be (overwhelmed) because they’ve been around Carlos Beltran.”
That fits into the story that Beltran often tells about the inspiration for the academy and the experience he doesn’t want other Puerto Rican youths to have.
Beltran was selected by Kansas City in the second round of the 1995 draft. He tells people that during his first pro camp, he didn’t know enough English to understand directions. So, he would nod when the coaches talked, and then just mimic what the other players did. Heaven forbid if he had to go first in a drill.
As a prospect, Beltran was carried the label of a “five-tool” comet, one that streaks into a scout’s life only so often. Perez, also a native of Puerto Rico, said there was “an aura about him even then.”
Matheny played winter ball in Puerto Rico and remembers Beltran shadowing Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams and wowing other players with his elegant athleticism.
“I never believed that,” Beltran said of the five-tool expectations. “I never believed that I was what people thought. I was doing what I loved to do.”
Beltran grew more comfortable with the language and excelled on the field, debuting in 1998 after starting the year in Class A. He won the American League rookie of the year award in 1999, and by 2003 he was an annual threat for 100 runs, 20 homers and 100 RBIs. He was rapidly pricing himself out of KC. Late in 2004, Houston landed him and took off, winning the NL wild card. The talent that had been sparked in Puerto Rico and kindled in Kansas City went supernova for the Astros.
Now he wants to get back.
Ray Lugo, a former Chrysler executive and the president of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, has helped Beltran organize fundraisers for his namesake school. It was during a visit to Beltran’s house that he saw the batting cage that is adjacent to it, the weight room that was next to it, and the look Beltran had.
“He’s this quiet guy, but when you peel back the onion and see what makes this guy go, you see he’s a presence, he’s passionate,” Lugo said. “He’s been in this zone since January. This is a healthy Carlos Beltran and it’s very clear what he’s determined to do this year.”
Before being sidelined because of the flu last week, Beltran sat at his locker and readied himself for a workout. He rubbed salve on a few joints. He expertly placed a brace on his right knee. He politely evaded a question about how much longer he thinks he’ll play. He points to his two-year deal with the Cardinals and his persisting love of the game.
His effortless glide might have yielded to a grind, but the talent that dominated those 2004 playoffs still was there last summer.
He played 142 games last season, has embraced right field as a position that reduces the wear, and is part of an ensemble.
He knows where he wants to be.
He’s been to the brink before.
“I have accomplished nice things,” Beltran said. “Win a Gold Glove. Win a Silver Slugger bat. All-Star Games. It’s been great. But I would like to have that opportunity to win a championship. That’s something that I want to have again as an experience. There have been a lot players who played this game and have never won one. Right now, I’m looking for that. That’s what I want.”